Self-Compassion and Why it is Important for Our Wellbeing

DR JANA JENKINS explains what is self-compassion and why it is important for our wellbeing

Self-compassion can be defined as self-kindness or having an ability to be warm towards oneself, especially at times of adversity.  In addition, another important facet of self-compassion is recognising that life is challenging.   Learning how to take a balanced approach to experiencing negative emotions and how to observe them with openness can be helpful.

Research shows that developing self-compassion increases our sense of well-being and general health.  You may be wondering why self-compassion can help your mental and physical health. Perhaps you are someone who tends to be hard on yourself and very self-critical. You may feel exhausted from being always on the go, judging yourself and being unable to switch off.

The good news is that self-compassion can be learnt.  You can master how to become more sensitive to your needs (e.g. the need for recognition and respect from others, the need for confidence, independence etc).

From my clinical experience, it is not uncommon that people struggle to identify their needs and recognise when they are not met.  Another tendency is to find it much easier to be kinder to others rather than to ourselves and adopt ‘double standards’ when it comes to kindness. For example, we are less likely to think of someone else as ‘useless’ when they make a mistake as opposed to judging ourselves when the same occurs.

The key aspect of self-compassion is learning how to tolerate, accept and become less frightened of our feelings.

It is helpful to know that our experiences of emotions emerge from the patterns created in our brains and bodies. It is useful to think about operating within three different systems; threat, incentive and soothing system.  Let me explain their different functions.

The function of the threat system is to pick up on threats quickly and generate feelings such as anxiety which then alerts and urges us to act against the threat and to self-protect.   Our brains can over-estimate threats because that’s how they are designed to work.

The incentive system is important to give us positive feelings that guide, motivate and encourage us to seek out things and resources in order to survive and prosper. We are motivated and pleased by seeking out, consuming and achieving nice things (e.g. food, places to live, comforts, friendships, etc). It will not surprise you that in modern societies this system becomes overstimulated and can lead to feeling overwhelmed.

Operating in the soothing system on the other hand results in feelings of contentment, social affiliation and peacefulness.  Many people struggle with self-compassion because cultivating self-compassion is not easy and we need to practice it and prioritise it. We all need time to stop, reflect, process our feelings, be with loved ones, have a cuddle and sometimes just simply ‘be’ rather than always ‘do’.

Noticing when we are harsh on ourselves and judging our feelings can be helpful. Noticing when we are not kind to ourselves is also beneficial; perhaps we are overworking, not sleeping enough, pleasing others but not recognising our needs.

When we practice meditation, mindfulness and ‘slowing down’, we are not concerned with wanting or striving, we tend to feel more connected with others and contented.  Many people I see are striving to achieve this sense of contentment and it is their lifelong ambition to achieve this state.

Do you think that you may be someone who can benefit from self-compassion?  What is the one thing that you can change to become kinder to yourself?